As I was reminded during my travels, the abortion debate is by no means confined to America’s borders. I saw anti-choice posters featuring fetuses on the street in downtown Vienna. But that’s old-school anti-abortion activism; one newer strategy, in both the U.S. and abroad, is to portray the procedure as a form of "eugenics," whipping up moral panic over the fact that due to advances in prenatal genetic testing, up to 90 percent of expectant parents who receive a definitive prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome are now choosing to terminate their pregnancies. Now, as Agence France Presse reports (via Kaiser Daily Women’s Health Policy Report), Italy is awash in controversy over a botched June abortion in which the wrong twin fetus — the one without Down syndrome — was aborted. The pregnant woman chose to abort her second fetus when she learned of the mistake, and reported her doctors to the police. The Vatican’s newspaper called the woman’s original choice to abort "illegitimate." And an Italian senator wrote an op-ed declaring, "What happened in this hospital was not a medical abortion but an abortion done for the purposes of eugenics."
The intersection of reproductive justice and disability rights is one of the thorniest in medical ethics, and pregnant women are feeling the pressure on all sides. It shouldn’t be presumed, for example, that women of color, poor women, or single parents will be more interested in terminating Down syndrome pregnancies because of fewer resources to care for a disabled child. In fact, in the American Latino community, more parents choose to continue such pregnancies.
But families who do decide to abort — and who often go into genetic testing knowing they will terminate an affected pregnancy — should not be pressured to meet with parents raising children with Down syndrome. Such programs are gaining popularity in the Down syndrome community, since parents of kids with the condition are understandably concerned that fewer people with Down syndrome means fewer resources devoted to helping people with the disease. It is this anxiety within the disability rights community that anti-choicers are poised to exploit, even as disability advocates reach out to the pro-choice community in an attempt to increase understanding. If you’re interested in learning more about that dialogue, check out this piece of mine from In These Times.
Of course, it’s long been an anti-choice tactic to create an acceptability hierarchy of women’s reasons for choosing abortion. Remember South Dakota state representative Bill Napoli saying that the only moral abortion would be for a religious teenage virgin who’d been brutally raped and sodomized? The problem, of course, is that most people live in a world not of moral absolutes, but of gray areas, and want their laws to reflect that. That’s why South Dakota voters rejected their no-exceptions abortion ban last year. So in a time of increased worry over the uses of genetic medicine, we should be on the lookout for attempts to smear women’s choices with the label "eugenics." It’s simple common sense that not every family can, at any given point in their lives, accept the burden of raising a severely disabled child, just as not every family can accept the burden of raising any child.